Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Minis: KC Krumpholz, AJ McGuire, M.Kalra

Taking on some idiosyncratic items here...

Succour Fanzine Issue #2, by AJ McGuire, illustrations by Dylan Chadwick. This is a highly entertaining zine about comics by a critic who would be ideally suited doing short pieces for the old Comics Journal, if that still existed. Actually, if I was the Journal's editor, I'd hire him right now to do a monthly "review of reviewers" column that he did here, reminiscent of an old feature from SPY. McGuire successfully stradldles the line between snark and sincerity, as he genuinely has things to say about comics and not just random potshots or quips. His "Essays About Comics I Have Considered Writing" is similarly both funny and pointed. The brief interview of and four pages of interesting drawings by Craig Ronan rounded out this short but compelling zine that revealed McGuire's aesthetic as much as it did Ronan's. McGuire points out the tension between abstraction and figuration in the drawings, and Ronan notes that it's that tension that makes it interesting. I'd say there's also a tension between McGuire's love of comics and his disappointment in both them and the industry, and it's his genuine investment in comics that makes this a compelling read.

World-Changing, by Mohar Kalra. This is a first attempt at a short story by a high school senior, and it shows a lot of promise and ambition. It's a story about an earnest young man named Jim, a dreamer-type, who silently judges others while overinflating his own importance and worth--alone, naturally. He gets kicked out of a bar, loses his wallet and simply sits on the sidewalk, pondering others, imagining himself as a hero, and generally fantasizing that he can somehow change the world with his ideas, even if they are a bit on the megalomaniacal side. Then a young woman interrupts his reverie and essentially joins right in. Jim has found a kindred spirit and doesn't quite understand that he's been handed a tremendous opportunity. In the end, he messes it up by losing her number, and Kalra extrapolates to him being old and lonely, having squandered a shot at connection, at happiness. Kalra's line is understandably on the rough side, but there's nothing wrong with the ambition of his page composition. Every page varies in terms of layout depending on what's happening, whether it's Jim in his dreams or Jim staring at others in panel after panel. Kalra is a solid storyteller who also understands the use of negative space and how to lead the eye across a complicated page with a minimum of difficulty. While his character design is a bit shaky, the young woman (Jen) has an interesting look that immediately catches the eye of the reader, a look that's idiosyncratic yet entirely personal. Hopefully, Kalra keeps going with this, because this is very strong work for someone who is this young and has no formal training.

An Introduction To Alcohol, by Karl Christian Krumholz. Krumholz writes funny, hard-bitten stories about the various people he's encountered and the stories he's heard from years of hanging out in pleasingly seedy bars, with Denver being the most fruitful of his targets. This comic is a collection of strips he did about his relationship with his now-dead father. His father was a classic alcoholic jock, bringing his kid to bars with him and ordering young Karl Shirley Temples to drink. There are a number of telling quotes that Krumholz emphasizes in the story, like when young Karl wants to leave because "it smells weird in here", and his father says "Yes, it does..but if you're anything like me, kid...you'll find yourself in these kind of places a lot. Better get used to it." Of course, this would come true, only with Krumholz fashioning himself a hard-drinking writer-artist instead of a jock, a subject that would divide them their entire lives.

Krumholz walks the line between glorifying crazed alcoholics in his strips, having empathy for them and depicting just how awful their lives are, but he always does it with a laugh. In these stories about his dad, the laughs are far more scarce. It tracks Karl's first taste of alcohol, driving his shitfaced dad home from a baseball game, and getting punched in the jaw hard by his father for the offense of walking in front of the TV. The punchline of the comic is that by the time Karl grew up and started drinking (a story about the first time he got drunk was puke-tastic and funny), his dad had gotten clean and got religion. No matter what, never the twain did meet between the two of them, but despite Karl's protestations, he showed himself to be more like his father than he was willing to admit. Everything about Krumholz' work is about exaggeration: hard angles, dead eyes, and even a melancholic blue wash throughout the issue. There are times where that exaggeration is almost too much, like when his father punches him, but Krumholz follows through no matter what--both in terms of what he draws and how he draws it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Minis: M.Hoey & P.Hoey, C.Cass, W.Taylor

Time for some more mini talk:

Coin Op: Project Gemini (Musical Twins) and Coin Op: Chuck Berry's Revenge (Afro-Futurist Re-Mix), by Peter & Maria Hoey. The Hoey siblings have always been interesting in exploring music on the comics page, and their "45 RPM comics" are shaped like the old 45 sleeves: an aesthetically pleasing square. Project Gemini is one of their comics that combines historical research and straight-up illustration, juxtaposing interesting anecdotes about famous musical twins with vintage imagery of casinos, countrysides and gas stations that all use a twin theme.

On the other hand, Chuck Berry's Revenge is hilariously deranged, working in themes, quotes and lyrics from a number of artists into this unexpected sequel to Back To The Future. As you may recall, Marty McFly passes off Chuck Berry's work as his own, to the point where Chuck's "cousin" Marvin plays him some of the music. We see the other end of that conversation, as a furious Chuck slams the phone into the wall. However, he seeks out avant garde jazz maestro Sun Ra, who sends rock pioneer Ike Turner with him to alter the course of history. Turner kills Henry Ford, uses his assembly line idea, and becomes America's premier industrialist, only with a diverse workforce. Chuck goes back to 1955 and seduces Marty's mom ("she's too cute to be a minute over seventeen"), causing Marty to disappear. This twelve-page comic features an avalanche of ideas, jokes, references, puns and history, and it's astonishing just how much havoc the Hoeys wreaked in the course of the story. The mix of naturalism and psychedelia (the "Afro-Futurist Remake") were perfectly balanced for a comics story, as both made sense right away, given the story's absurd premise.

The Once Great Auk, by Caitlin Cass. As far as Cass's comics go, this one is pretty grimly straightforward. The Great Auk was a bird that had no natural fear of man, was plentifully found on small islands, and exceedingly easy to kill. It was like they were a litmus test for humanity's capacity for mercy that it wildly failed. With each page a single panel, Cass zeroes in on the escalating hilarious and horrible circumstances surrounding the eventual total extinction of this species. Cass indulges in some detailed cross-hatching in this comic, emphasizing the utterly benign quality of the bird and its utter lack of a survival instinct. From an evolutionary perspective, it's a simple case of a species getting wiped out because it had no way of dealing with its predator. From a human perspective, it's an extreme example of the way we take advantage of nature without fully thinking of the consequences, like an exceedingly long game of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

Fizzle #1, by Whit Taylor. Taylor has really come into her own in the past year or two doing autobiography and journalism. This series represents her best slice-of-life work to date, and she really stands out in terms of character design and expression. Always great at drawing side-eye and creating expressions with scrunched-up mouths, Taylor really goes to town with those expressions in this comic in panel after panel. In a story that's mostly a series of talking heads, Taylor creates action and tension in each panel because of the frequently seething and hidden character of emotions that are hinted at by facial expressions. This story follows a young woman named Claire who is questioning her life's choices. She has a stoner boyfriend with a rich family that he's rebelling against, finding him complaining about having to hang out with his dad and brother at a posh steakhouse. She has a job at a boutique tea "lounge" with a hilariously obnoxious boss named Poppy who is obsessively focused with her business. Her glasses and sort of mop-top haircut are a great example of the way Taylor used character design to sum up her characters without saying a word. This is a character who isn't suffering: she has a job, a relatively cushy life and a boyfriend--yet it's clear that she's deeply depressed, her life the titular "fizzle" as she has no creative outlet. The verisimilitude of the dialogue and the story's tiniest details are elements that help it stand out, as well as variations in page design that reflect Claire's disorientation and ennui. The cover image reflects the overall cleverness of the comic. It's exciting to see how Taylor has come into her mature style as an artist and is doing it across the board with all of her various projects.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Minis: M.Turbitt, J.Baylis, J.Porcellino

That blissful comics avalanche feel is upon me after SPX. All I can do is sift through and start reviewing.

How To Eat Chips, by Meghan Turbitt. Turbitt continues her hilarious, over-the-top social satire by way of exploring advertising and imagery surrounding food in this mini. From the cover that's a parody of the Utz brand of potato chips to the "nutritional facts" on the back that indicates that it provides 200% of daily laughs, 100% of advice and 50% each of fashion, fine art & literature, this mini even has a single-page inset "Guide To Eating Potato Chips". What makes this mini so successful is Turbitt's genuine enthusiasm for food and snack foods in particular. The manic energy that Turbitt provides for her drawings is inherently funny in drawings of potato chips and people eating them; the dissonance between what we expect in a work of advertising and promotion and what she does on the page is amusingly diverting. The further the mini goes on, the sillier it gets, like listing the "best songs to listen to while eating Rap Snacks", positing pretzels as the enemy of chips, creating a "chips dream team" and imagining future chip flavors like oyster, pho, and lobster roll. At the same time, while the mini becomes silly, it never becomes absurd, and stays in the gravity of its central premise: a guide to something that needs no guide at all.

So Buttons #8, by Jonathan Baylis, et al. Baylis continues to get better with every issue of his collaborative autobio comic. His writing is sharper, more concise, funnier and just has a greater overall crispness and purpose. In terms of style, he's never been lacking for ideas, and the cover for this issue was just killer: a parody of the cover of American Splendor #4, as drawn by Robert Crumb. This was the one where noted record fiends Harvey Pekar & Crumb were doing an aw-shucks trade on records they really wanted, each thinking they ripped the other off. This time around, it's a drawing of Baylis and cover artist Noah Van Sciver, doing the same thing with comics. It's hilariously on point and evocative of the original while very much being in Van Sciver's mature style.

Baylis has learned to find good matches for story subjects. "So...Porky" is about his rejection of his Jewish religious roots in terms of dogma around diet and how he embraced pork. This was a light-hearted story, so a cartoony and light line like Corrine Mucha's was a solid pairing. I especially enjoyed how he went into so much detail about something called a Shanghai soup dumpling, which amusingly has a set of rituals surrounding it that one might almost call religious. Rick Parker's versatility and ability to draw horror images made him the right partner for "So...Hallow", which is a history of his love of Halloween make-up. It includes an interlude by Van Sciver where extremely gory make-up one Halloween stopped an angry motorist he'd just gotten into a fender-bender with in his tracks. Baylis always has a way of bringing these anecdotes around to more significant events, and in this case it was his initial interest in doing movie effects make-up for a living that waned when he started doing it for others, along with a general disinterest in Halloween that started after 9/11. The happy ending is that he started finding ways to dress up his dog. "So...Bejeweled" (with one of the best artists with regard to drawing animals in Rachel Dukes) is about his first dog as an adult who died not long after they got her, while "So...Close" is an amusing short with long-time collaborator T.J. Kirsch wherein he tells his wife that the feels like their life is settling down for the better...only to run out of gas. This issue is a solid, satisfying piece of storytelling.

South Beloit Journal, by John Porcellino. This mini from Uncivilized Books has an interesting origin. After finishing drawing a book about suicide, he found himself with 91 2x6" scraps of Bristol board after he trimmed the pages to size. He was inspired to do a daily, three panel journal strip that was very different from the sort of thing he does in King-Cat Comics & Stories. There's a level of precision, even in a minimalist sense, in those comics. Those comics are poetic, and the anecdotes carefully chosen. With a daily strip, John P simply unloaded what was on his mind in the fastest, rawest manner possible. The fact that he was going through an especially low, lonely period of his life and that he did this anyway is just part and parcel of Porcellino and his approach to life. Even at his most depressed, he finds a way to keep going, keep working, keep drawing, keep connecting and keep trying. The bright moments in this comic come when he's connecting with someone else, or talking to cartoonist friends of his at shows, or getting up and drawing/working when he would rather sleep all day. He's a sort of living example of the positive effects of what is known in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) as "opposite action"--doing the opposite of what you want to do in a depressed state, in order to change mood. The journal is also proof that no matter how awful today is, tomorrow has a chance to be better. That's borne out in the back half of the journal, when he goes on an extended trip to Canada for various shows and readings, and also starts dating someone new. Porcellino is not one to overromanticize anything, so reading about him watching the hockey playoffs with his new girlfriend is a kind of shorthand for that sense of new romantic energy. Making those connections and soldiering on with his creative work doesn't make everything perfect, but in these raw, ragged and emotionally vulnerable strips, Porcellino shows that it can at least help.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Reflections on SPX 2017

I've been writing SPX reports for a good fifteen years now. I've been involved in the show in a number of capacities: as a writer making sense of it, as a presenter of an Ignatz award, as a moderator of numerous panels, and as the first guest-curator for the Library of Congress' sweep of the show for new material. This year marked the first time I've actually stepped behind the curtain, as it were, and joined the staff in the capacity of co-programming director.

As such, this report will be more personal and less about the nuts and bolts of the show itself. What I will say about that is the staff, to a person was outstanding to work with. I've long had a warm relationship with Executive Director Warren Bernard, and he was delightful to work with. There were over ninety volunteers at the show this year, and we had wave after wave of helpful individuals who worked the doors of the rooms for panels, keeping lines in tidy order. They were there to instantly fix A/V issues. They were there to head off problems before they escalated. Most of all, co-programming director Dan Mejia was an outstanding partner to work with. Together, we nailed down an ambitious programming track and got it to run smoothly. All of the feedback we've received so far has been immensely positive.

I was very happy with all of the moderators this year, but let me single out a few. J.A. Micheline was a first-timer whom I trusted to pitch something interesting, and she did not disappoint. Her "Architecture Of A Page", featuring SPX star Tillie Walden, Sloane Leong, Chris Kindred, and Iasmin Omar Ata, was a smash hit. It was standing room only and drew raves for the way the artists dissected their work and Micheline directed the panel. Another first-timer, L.Nichols moderated "Genderfluidity, Technology and Futurism", a panel I conceived of and chose the guests for. This was another SRO event, and everyone dug deep. Yet another first-time moderator, Whit Taylor, did a great job with "World Building From Reality", even subbing in a new guest when one had to drop out at the last second.

I moderated two panels. First was the 10th Anniversary of Koyama Press panel, with Annie Koyama herself, Ben Sears, Eleanor Davis, Hannah K. Lee, Dustin Harbin, and Patrick Kyle. I skipped over the stuff most people knew about and went straight to asking Annie about the nuts and bolts of publishing: her criteria for choosing her books, how it's changed over the years, and the astoundingly non-bottom-line oriented nature of how she runs her business. My favorite segment of the panel was when I asked the artists what their favorite Koyama book was, and Sophia Foster-Dimino's brand-new Sex Fantasy was tabbed by two of the artists. That eventually led to a hilarious back-and-forth between Harbin, Lee and Davis. If you're running programming and you have the opportunity to include any or all of that trio, you should jump on it. Notably, after the panel, Annie told me that Sex Fantasy immediately sold out.

I concluded the show with a panel I designed called "Motherhood, Memoir and Mental Illness", featuring Keiler Roberts, Tyler Cohen, Luke Howard and Summer Pierre. That's a group whose work I know so well that I essentially wrote the questions five minutes before the panel began. Each brought a different perspective: Roberts as someone with bipolar disorder, Howard as someone who grew up with a mentally ill mother and eventually inherited the same mental illness, Cohen as someone raising her daughter as far away from toxic patriarchal attitudes as possible yet dealing with her own upbringing and the influence of the greater culture; and Pierre as someone dealing with the aftereffects of PTSD and a childhood of neglect. They were all so funny and forthright and willing to engage with each other and any topic. This was perhaps the most satisfying panel I've ever moderated.

A few words about the Ignatz awards. Typically, the response to programming and the way the Ignatz votes turn out tends to be a good way to take the pulse of the show. As I've written so many times, there's always been a rather stark divide between audiences at the show, roughly breaking down into an art comics vs genre comics split that manifested in print vs webcomics for quite some time. However, the last five years have seen that split slowly dissipate in many respects. A show that started off more diverse than most was still decidedly white, straight and male for many years. The gender divide was the first barrier to fall, but the show has steadily become younger, more diverse, more female and queerer every single year. The Ignatz awards are a tail-end indicator rather than a leading indicator, as it reflects the time it takes for a particular demographic to become part of the show's culture. Another way to think about the show is to look at the anthologies that debut there. More than ever, the artists making up the anthologies blur every kind of divide, be it on the art comics side or the genre side of things. Increasingly, there are more artists who straddle that divide as well. Young artists increasingly simply see all of comics as something they want to experiment with and don't feel the need to choose between memoir, genre comics, comics as poetry, etc. Many are doing it all, and mixing and matching in very interesting ways.

The wins by Bianca Xunise (Promising New Talent), Taneka Stotts (Outstanding Anthology) and the team of Yuko Ota & Ananth Hirsh (Outstanding Collection) point to this generational shift rather dramatically. It wasn't just the wins, but the impassioned acceptance speeches. Stotts' speech was all about visibility for creators of color, and how they will continue to tell their stories no matter what. Hirsh told a great story about being a kid and coming to SPX to meet Jeff Smith, who spent a lot of time with him and gave him a lot of attention. Only later did it occur to Hirsh that he was the only brown kid there. Ota and Hirsh hit on the theme of being people of color in a subculture (and honestly, a country) where they have often been invisible. Same with Stotts. Xunise's story was about her experience with police brutality and reflected on how she doesn't just want such stories to be done by people of color. However, it was Ben Passmore (the only man to win on the night, incidentally) who truly brought the house down with his speech. He made reference to George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat, as another brown man from New Orleans who drew comics about police brutality and brick throwing. He joked that he could have used the brick earlier in the day, when he was part of the Juggalo parade that was protesting a Trump rally. And at the end, he said, "In conclusion, fuck the police, free all prisoners, and fuck Trump!" as he walked off to thunderous applause.

As exhilarating and exhausting as the show itself is (and I never quite am able to make it to every table and see everyone that I want, no matter how much I prepare), it's the interactions after the show late at night on the patio that provide the most lasting memories. There was certainly a sense of metaphorically huddling for warmth at this show, given the horror show the nation has become, but there's also something else going on. The young artists who are coming to the show seem exceptionally focused on their craft, a testament to a new wave of cartoonists going to art school/cartoon school. It's also a testament to a generation that has had greater access to the entire history of comics than any generation that came before them, thanks to wide-ranging reprints and the internet. They've been simmering in a sea of influences for years, and you can see the result of that in the person of artists like Tillie Walden and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. If you don't know the latter name from my minicomics reviews, you will know it soon in other places. If the history of alternative comics can be divided into undergrounds (1965-1980), alternatives (1981-1993), and DIY/Xeric (1994-2005), I get the sense that we're about to close one chapter of comics and open up another. I can't wait to see what it looks like.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ten Artists To Seek Out At SPX 2017

I will be attending SPX this weekend; as always, it will be in North Bethesda, MD. Be careful not to get tripped up by the Juggalo gathering. I was co-programmer this year, and there's a great slate. I'm personally moderating the Koyama Press 10th Anniversary panel on Saturday and one I've been thinking of a long time: Motherhood, Mental Illness and Memoir, which will be on Sunday. As always, I will be accepting comics for review and wearing a black hat.


1. Carta Monir. Her debut from 2dcloud, Secure Connect, was a remarkable exploration of trans identity & technology and the ways in which the latter both bridges and has the potential to obscure the former. She's at the vanguard of a group of artists whose drawing style, interest in futurism and frank explorations of sex and emotional development all converge in distinctive ways.


2. Tyler Cohen. Not a typical autobio cartoonist, her Primahood: Magenta mixed a highly unconventional and boundary-breaking account of being a mother along with depicting a tribe of surreal, distinctively crafted women whose ferocity nor nurturing ability was ever in question. Cohen writes a lot of hard truths about guiding a child as best as one can in a world still heavily controlled by patriarchal thinking.

3. Sophia Foster-Dimino. Koyama Press just released a collection of her Sex Fantasy minicomics, and this brick of a book is filled with stories that are layered, hot, personal, emotional, quirky and even poetic. Like many on her list, her style is familiar in some ways and sui generis in others.

4. Katie Fricas. Her intimate, intense scribbly style has an immediacy and expressiveness to it that makes it fascinating to read. She's also hilarious, often approaching the darkest of events with a penetrating and self-deprecating wit.

5. November Garcia. All the way from the Philippines, Garcia is a funny, frank, crude, and thoughtful humorist and memoirist with a visual style that seems simple but is actually conceptually complex and even rigorous at times. Her keen observational skills and sharp timing are on display both in longer narratives (Foggy Notions) and gag strips (Malarkey). She'll be with her publisher, Hic & Hoc.

6. Aaron Lange. Comics' #1 purveyor of filth is also one of its keenest minds, sharpest observers and poetic hearts. His Trim series in particular has plenty of dirty gags, but there are also thoughtful meditations on his family, scrupulously-researched biographical pieces, musings on art and culture, and warts-and-all accounts of his youth. It's all told with a lively, naturalistic line.

7. Mardou. Sacha Mardou has been doing some of the best slice-of-stories in comics for quite some time, but the first volume of her book Sky In Stereo is clearly the best work of her career. This is somehow her first SPX, and she'll be doing a panel and a workshop in addition to showing off her work.(Correction: this is her first SPX since 2005.)

8. Avery Hill Publishing. I've enjoyed the eccentric, poetic and understated releases from this British publisher making their first appearance at SPX. Publisher (and writer) Ricky Miller and publicist (and cartoonist) Katriona Chapman will also be there, along with Tillie Walden. The two-time Ignatz award winner will be at her first SPX as well, and while her big book Spinning was just released by First Second, it was Avery Hill that took a chance and published her first three books. Check out Miller and Julia Scheele's Metroland, and anything by Simon Moreton.

9. Radiator Comics. This is Neil Brideau's new venture, and the Chicagoan is publishing and distributing all kinds of interesting comics. A few are directly published by Radiator, like Coco Picard's The Chronicles of Fortune. Chicago is one of the greatest of all comics cities, and Radiator has an interesting cross section of them. Sam Sharpe, Penina Gal, Luke Howard, Cara Bean and Coco Picard will be at the table this year.

10. Summer Pierre. In a very short amount of time, Pierre has become one of my favorite memoirists, thanks to the strength of her writing and the versatile quality of her art. From quotidian observations to life as an artist and mother to grappling with her own personal demons, Pierre's comics are beautiful and endlessly fascinating.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Fantagraphics: Katie Skelly's My Pretty Vampire

With My Pretty Vampire, rising star Katie Skelly has a book that matches up her exquisite color sense, delightfully lurid sense of humor, eye for style and aesthetics and acidly satirical, feminist take on gothic/horror tropes. Skelly's eye for page design and layout have always had a lot more in common with French fantasy comics and manga as well as a number of delightfully trashy horror & exploitation films than any American comics. While dialogue is important, it's her arrangement of images (and in this book, colors) that are essential to the narrative. The opening pages, which turn out to be a dream sequence, wind up establishing and foreshadowing much of the action in the rest of the book. It starts with a bouquet of flowers, then zooms in a rose bloom that's dripping blood. A beautiful, half-naked girl licks up the blood, briefly revealing the teeth of a vampire. When she comes upon a half-naked corpse, she finds that it's her own body, dripping blood, prompting her to wake up from the dream.

The rest of the first chapter serves two purposes, narrative and aesthetic: establishing who she is, why she's there and her intent of escape; and long, lingering shots of her bathing, swimming and generally serving as an erotically-charged object of the gaze of her brother, who acts as a stand-in for the reader in that sense. We learn that she's a vampire who's been held captive in her brother's house for her own "protection", even going to school. Whatever noble intentions he may have are undermined by a shot of him watching her bathe through a peephole, establishing that no one in this book has the moral high ground. Clover, the titular vampire, is hungry from years of drinking ox blood but manages to escape. Switching from day to night, Skelly immediately embraces the night, with Clover's shining golden hair drawing the reader's eye into every panel where she's scurrying around at night.

In a horror-exploitation story like this, nudity is certainly expected, but so is violence and gore. Skelly does not skimp in the latter department either, beginning with her biting a trucker who is actually worried about her being underage. Skelly uses an interesting narrative device here, as she shifts to first person narrative captions that are so specific to her memories of what it was like to be a vampire that she barely acknowledged the personhood of the driver. Skelly adds a few more layers to the narrative as we meet a vampire hunter tasked to find her as well as a vampire cult who helped to create her. Skelly is careful not to overwhelm the story's imagery with too much plot, however--just enough to add some shade and structure to the story. Instead, both story and imagery intensify as the story goes on, as Clover hits the big city.

There's a great scene, after she's dodged sunlight and recharged herself with a new victim, where she stares into the window of a restaurant. Instead of starving for the food they were eating, she was starving for the blood they possessed--a clever image, as her hands dripped with blood. She allows herself to get picked up at a bar and then goes to a house party that quickly turns both erotically charged and bloody. We then get a flashback which reveals that her brother deliberately had her turned into a vampire by a vampiric order in order that "the one you love will never die". It's a creepy, incestuous gesture, made more so by the fact that she was underage. The same is true of the man who picked her up, as she was even wearing a school uniform when he started to hit on her. Even in a scene where she's actually having fun with a woman who's seducing her, her actual lusts come to the fore. Echoing the beginning of the book's dream, a half-naked Clover dripping blood from her mouth slowly and blankly eyes the other guests at the party as the objects they are for her.

The book's climax finds Clover, the vampire hunter and the order all converging at once. While her threat to society at large is neutralized, the ending has a tantalizing bit of karmic payback for her brother. It's a classic morally muddled ending to this kind of story, where there may be protagonists but there are no heroes. There are only competing urges, and Skelly's ending finds Clover with the kind of agency that she had been denied by her wholly unpleasant brother. Indeed, words like "love" and concepts like empathy have little meaning given the way her brother tried to control her and instead helped to create an amoral monster. The way Skelly slowly unveils increasing moral ambiguity in her characters escalates at the same time that style, fashion, sex and violence also become increasingly important to the story. Striking that note between lurid and stylish feels like what Skelly's career has been leading up to, and she was greatly aided in the undertaking by Keeli McCarthy's striking cover design. From the logo design meant to invoke 60s psychedelia (complete with a drop of blood bulging down from one of the letters, the color shifting from yellow-orange to red) and the ecstatic, half-naked Clover on the cover, blood dripping from her lips, it's a perfect composition that finds the eye bouncing from the title to the figure and back again.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Secret Acres: Michiel Budel's Francine

Francine is a continuation of Michiel Budel's Wayward Girls series, focusing on the titular character and her friends. It's hard to pin down. It's got underage sex and nudity, but it's not at all erotic. Indeed, despite the scores of panty shots, its surreal quality and the intense agency of its female characters disrupt the male gaze. Katie Skelly compared Budel to the Russian artist Balthus and others have compared him to Henry Darger in his use of pubescent girls in fantasy, dreamlike scenarios. Somehow, Budel's work is even less prurient despite its more explicit nature, owing in part to obliterating the mystery of sexuality and removing its fantasy aspects. Indeed, sex and female friendships are the only truly "real" thing in these comics, which go in some odd directions as social and political commentary.

Mostly, the strips (originally published as "Franzine" minis) are comedy pieces; absurd, over-the-top satires of family life and the "dangers" of having strong-willed children. Much of the book centers around the swimming pool she builds out of spare parts, the sleazy pool boy who's fucking her mom, her various friends (each of a different faith), and assorted schemes she concocts to get out of doing school work. Francine's adversarial relationship with her young mother (who pretty much looks almost as young as Francine does) is another important aspect of the book, as Francine steals her boyfriend in one sequence. She does it more to piss her off than because she wants to have sex with him. That pales in comparison to what she does to Bully Girl, who was mean to her Muslim friend Gishlaine: she follows her home, caves her head in with a baseball bat and buries her in her front yard! It only gets weirder from there as she has to move the body (with the help of Gish), confront Bully Girl's mother) and then discover that Bully Girl is somehow still alive but missing her memories.

Francine later fakes her own death in order to avoid an art history test, only to find that her friends can no longer see her. She sacrifices the pool boy to Satan (but not the real Satan!) in another strip. The pool boy and another boy fight over her pool while Fran is paralyzed, ejaculating on a sandwich as a way of settling who gets in first. My favorite story was "Generation French Fries", in which an anthropology project leads to Francine, Githlaine and the waspy girl next door, Annet, all switching identities. Fran becomes Annet, who gets excited because she her mom gives her money to eat food at the snack bar near the house (because her mom was fooling around with Pool Boy again). After Fran/Annet has sex with Pool Boy on camera, she's excited because it generates more snack bar money. Annet becomes Gish, who is delighted that she's in for an arranged marriage with a nice boy who likes her instead of her crazy life with her "borderline" mother. Gish becomes Fran and starts sucking off the rabbi and a nice boy intended for her as well. The end of the story finds all of them switching back, alarming nearly everyone; it's not every day you hear a line like "By the blue balls of Jahweh!".

Perversion seeks to shock when it presents itself as out of the norms and mores of society. That's how it becomes prurient content, content designed to draw the male gaze in particular. It provides shock and dismay when at the same time the "offended" person is really turned on, as anger and desire blend into each other and demand accountability. What Budel does here is reverse the polarity of this interaction. Perversion becomes the defacto language of his characters, a language spoken in such direct defiance of mores that they shatter them. The girls are in complete control of their situations. Men and boys are mostly annoyances or there to be used. Sex is a means to an end, and Fran in particular knows what she wants. This isn't soft-focus porn; it's more like in-your-face, girl-gang action. Francine couldn't care less if you're looking at her or not, and if you piss her off, she will deal with you. Of course, the whole book is designed and drawn in a way that's meant to be off-putting and challenging. Budel's simple linework and thin line weights are the opposite of erotic artists like Guido Crepax or Milo Manera (the latter being an all-time male gaze renderer). The way Budel crams as many as 16 panels onto a page also lessens the visual impact of particular images, especially when he goes extra cartoony and gives his characters dots for eyes or distorts their forms in amusing ways. Perversion is just one of many options from his toolbox, but they all have the goal of making the reader laugh, even if it's a nervous one.

Monday, September 11, 2017

D&Q: Tom Gauld's Baking With Kafka

Baking With Kafka is another collection of Gauld's strips for The Guardian, and it's Gauld doing riffs and gags. I prefer his long-form work as it's drier and more restrained in its humor, but that's not to say that his pure gag work ins't entertaining as well. This collection of strips isn't so much a collection of strips about literary concerns in the vein of a Kate Beaton, but rather a series of meta-literary strips. That is, they are strips about writing, about the tedious business of publishing, about the cynical nature of advertising, about the way books become product, but most of all about books qua books. It pokes gentle fun at fantasy quests, literary cliches, romance tropes as well as the workshops aimed at writers desperate to get published.

All of this is done in Gauld's usual dry and deadpan manner, with a healthy dose of the silly and absurd heaped on top. Indeed, a lot of the jokes in the book are funny because Gauld pummels the reader with context, delivers the joke, and then goes back to context. Take "Niccolo Machiavelli's Plans For The Summer". In terms of drawing, this couldn't have taken more than an hour, because all it is is a calendar. The joke is conceptual, as the first Monday's plan is "Plot", the first Tuesday is "Scheme", the first Wednesday is "Connive", etc, all based on our conception of Machiavelli from his famous book The Prince. That's amusing, but after piling on for seven straight days, we get the more amusing "Dentist" on a Monday, and then ten days marked off for "Holidays!", and back to "Deceive", "Collude", etc, interrupted only once more with "Mum's birthday". It's a joke that would not have worked without a really good thesaurus and a strong conceptual grounding, because without the repetition of the expected bits, the other part of the joke wouldn't have landed.

Slightly less successful is "Magical Items For Fantasy Writers", where each magic item is described as doing something like "Dispels misgivings, gloom, bad advice and writer's block". Here, the joke is simply repeated from panel to panel, rather than building from panel to panel. The best strips incorporate visuals as a key element of their humor, and this is where Gauld's minimalism shines. Using simple silhouettes, he's able to evoke nearly any kind of situation. "Forgotten Chapters of Jane Austen's Emma" is a good example. The captions ("The Witch's Prophecy", "Bonaparte Attacks Hartfield", "Emma's Warrior Training" and "Wild West Adventure") are all funny on their own. But it's the drawings of silhouetted blimps bombing a British manor, of Emma learning to fight using an umbrella and Emma on horseback dodging arrows that help the joke to really land.

My favorite of Gauld's literary strips are those which feature books as anthropomorphic characters. There's one where a stodgy old literary novel refuses to let his daughter marry a fantasy novel named "Kingdom of Iron" ("He is epic and exciting and I love him!"). Instead, he's arranged for her to marry "pickwick.com", a "humorous modern update of a classic". The latter book is presented as wearing sunglasses and saying "Yo!". This is another conceptual strip, but the small visual flourishes are crucial in helping the joke to land, like the older book carrying a cane. Gauld also uses color not so much to emphasize his jokes, but simply as a way to fill negative space and force the reader's eye back to his figures.

Gauld is such a strong conceptual humorist that he barely needs illustrations for many of his strips, but this is sometimes unfortunate because his drawing is clear & efficient and creates clever juxtapositions to his text in his longer narratives. Indeed, some of Gauld's best work occurs in long, extended silent scenes where all the gags are visual. That's because this allows him to establish his themes in a more restrained and less obvious manner, without losing any of the humor. It's the difference between a long-form, personal work and a regular cartoon with a deadline. With the latter, Gauld has a lot of variations on particular themes that he alternates, most of which circle around the idea that books and characters are wonderful but publishing and all that goes with it is very silly indeed.